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After a difficult offseason in which its top returning player transferred across town, Jackson Liberty is ready to move forward and chase a playoff spot with a number of returning starters.

The Lions lost four-year varsity player Matt Castronuova, a two-time Class B South all-division defensive back, via transfer to Jackson Memorial over the summer. Castronuova is one of the top returning defensive backs in the Shore Conference and a versatile weapon on offense, but the Lions are eager to show they’re about more than one player.

“It was kind of a slap in the face, and it motivated us,” said junior two-way lineman Jared Dizenzo.

“After losing some key people we’ve really come together as a family,” said senior quarterback and linebacker Ryan Van Wickle. “We have some tough teams in the division, but I think we’ll also be a tough squad.”

Van Wickle will step in as the starting quarterback in Jackson Liberty’s multiple spread offense, which will try to improve on its 14 points-per-game average from last year. He will be replacing the graduated John Veneziano, who threw for over 1,000 yards last season. Van Wickle starts as a linebacker on defense, and also saw time at running back last season in addition to starting three games at quarterback..

While Van Wickle has to adjust to a new position, he will have three experienced wide receivers to throw to. Senior Brett Ribellino returns after leading the team with 23 receptions for 251 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and senior captain Matt Pinto is also back after posting a team-best 301 receiving yards. Mike Stout also returns after starting last season. Twin brothers Jared and Ken Pommerencke will also see time at receiver.

Senior Matt Pinto returns as a starter at wide receiver in Jackson Liberty's spread offense, and is also a returning starter at cornerback. (Photo by Bob Badders).

“Just having kids with that Friday night experience is something we haven’t had,” said head coach Jim Sharples. “Usually we’d only have maybe two or three, but this year we have a lot more, and we’re going to really rely on those guys.”

Junior Justin Grome and senior Jon Madera will work interchangeably as the fullback and tight end, depending on the specific formation. The running back is senior Dom Regina, who returns after missing his junior year with a knee injury. Regina played as a sophomore and gives the Lions speed at tailback.

“I’m glad to be back on the field with these kids,” Regina said. “I see a lot of fire in this team’s eyes. The younger kids are stepping up, and we have a lot to look forward to.”

The offensive line returns a pair of starters as well as a starter changing positions. Dizenzo leads the group at center with senior Kyle Scripko, who wasn’t a starter but saw significant action last season, at right tackle. Senior Brenden Busacca started at fullback last season and will switch to right guard. The left guard will be junior J.J. Goodman and the left tackle spot is between senior Josh Morton and junior Chris Pondish.

“We just all need to step up and do our jobs,” Dizenzo said. “Last year I was the guy learning everything, but I’m more of a leader now. I know every position and can help everybody out.”

On defense, the Lions will run a 3-3-5 with Dizenzo and Morton as the nose tackle and a rotation at defensive end that includes Busacca, Goodman, Pondish, Scripko and senior Rodney Griffin.

While the defensive line will be breaking in new starters, the back eight returns six starters. The middle linebacker is Regina, who started as a sophomore. The inside linebackers are both returning starters in seniors Ryan Barbato and Brian Mathieu. The outside linebackers/strong safeties are Van Wickle and senior Ryan Brennan.

Senior Dom Regina (13) returns after missing his junior year with a knee injury. He will start at running back and middle linebacker. (Photo by Bob Badders).

Pinto returns as a starter at cornerback while the opposite cornerback spot has been a battle between seniors Jordan Billups and Brian Smith. Jared Pommerencke will also see time at corner. Safety is the big hole to fill defensively with the departure of Castronuova, and it will be Ribellino stepping in as the starter along with Ken Pommerencke seeing some action.

“I’m trying to bring my speed all over the field, and on defense I want to be a lot more aggressive,” Pinto said. “It’s my senior year, so I’m giving everything I have.”

Junior Braden Yorke returns as the team’s kicker after going 14-for-14 on extra points and connecting on four field goals with a long of 35 yards. Busacca will again be the team’s punter.

Last season the Lions finished 4-6 and just out of a playoff spot, even though they had one more win than the eighth-seeded team. As a Group IV school playing in a division with Group II and Group III schools, it’s an uphill battle to secure power points. They open this season with a brutal four-game stretch that includes games against Jackson Memorial, Barnegat, Lakewood and Manchester. The Lions know, however, that if they can knock off either Jackson Memorial, Barnegat or Lakewood, each of which were playoff teams last season, along with beating Manchester, it will set them up for a run to the playoffs.

“We’re going to try to win them all, but in reality if you get two of those four the schedule sets up nicely for us,” Sharples said. “These kids aren’t afraid to play anybody, so it’s nice to get those teams early before their reputations start to precede them.”

“It’s going to be a really big stretch of games,” Van Wickle said. “Obviously Barnegat and Memorial are going to be very good, but we have a chance if we don’t beat ourselves.”

The game against Jackson Memorial was previously a Thanksgiving game, but has been moved to the opening game. A win over the Jaguars would obviously be the perfect way to begin the season.

“Us going in and getting a win, that could really make our season,” Dizenzo said.


Head coach: Jim Sharples, 2nd season

Career record: 4-6

Assistant coaches: Frank Giannetti (asst. head coach/DL); Chris James (off. coord./QB); Ryan Hesnan (def. coord./OLB); Rob Brown (DB); Anthony Myers (WR); Mark Lax (RB/spec. teams); Matt Spader, Mike McCarthy (freshman); Chris Grande (athletic trainer).

2013 record: 4-6 (3-4)

Big Shoes to Fill: Brett Ribellino, Sr., WR/S

With Matt Castronuova’s departure, Ribellino will step in at safety to replace the two-time all-division selection.

X-Factor: The offense

Jackson Liberty will have to up its scoring from 14 points per game if it hopes to climb the ladder in B South while also contending for a playoff spot. The receiving corps is experienced, but there are new players at quarterback and running back.

Glue Guy: Matt Pinto, Sr., WR/CB

Sharples called Pinto a born leader and named him as the team’s only captain. “With him I don’t need another captain. He carries himself like a professional.”

Impact Newcomers: Jared and Ken Pommerencke, Jr., WR/DB

The juniors will step in at wide receiver and defensive back to add depth to already strong positional groups.

Pivotal Game: Sept. 27 vs. Barnegat

The Lions will need to pick off a top team over the first four weeks of the season to give themselves a shot at a playoff spot. Barnegat is the defending division champion and a state title contender, so a win at home versus the Bengals would produce a significant power-point haul.